26 June 2024

The importance of nutrition in care homes and for older adults

As we age, our nutritional requirements evolve significantly, making a balanced diet crucial not just for physical health but also for mental wellbeing. This is especially true for older adults in care homes, where proper nutrition can significantly improve quality of life and make the lives of those caring for them much easier. Essential nutrients play a vital role in everything from bone health and muscle maintenance to memory, sleep quality, and concentration. 

It’s never too late to start building habits that support good nutrition. Simple practices like starting each day with a glass of water, taking supplements at the same time daily, and enjoying a protein-rich breakfast can make a big difference. Let’s explore the key nutrients that are essential for senior nutrition needs and how they can be incorporated into daily routines to promote overall health and wellbeing in care homes.  

Essential nutrients for older adults 

Understanding the critical role of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, among other nutrients, is key to supporting physical strength, mental health, and overall vitality. In this section, we look into the importance of these nutrients, practical ways to incorporate them into care home meal planning, and considerations for making these dietary changes effectively for older adult’s nutrition. 

Protein
Research suggests that as humans age, they need more protein, yet tend to consume much less. It’s very likely that a lean source of protein isn’t consumed at every meal and snack to assist with the decline in muscle protein synthesis as we age. Less muscle to support the skeleton means falls are more likely to happen due to lack of support. A really straightforward way this could be achieved is by introducing a protein rich milkshake into the diet each day. Obviously, encouraging protein consumption through consuming protein rich foods would be far more beneficial from a nutritional standpoint but for convenience a drink may be more suitable. Perhaps framing it as a milkshake might get more individuals onboard. 

Other ways protein can be included within care home meal planning could be: 

  • Chunks of cheddar cheese or scoops of cottage cheese with celery and cucumber. 
  • Greek yoghurt with fruit as a snack, served as a dip or with a main meal. 
  • Including tinned fish such as tuna or salmon. 
  • Offering milk or milkshakes as a drink which is also extremely hydrating. 
  • Offering eggs, baked beans, greek yoghurt and smoked salmon at breakfast. 
  • Offering peas as a side dish with main meals which are a good source of veggie protein.  

Change will inevitably be difficult, and it is always worth considering a reasonable timeframe and staggering any new items over a period of time rather than them happening all at once. Healthy eating for the elderly depends a lot on traditions, culture and their desire to adopt new things too.

Fish oil (Omega 3 or DHA/EPA)
The research on fish oil intake and supplementation is continually growing. Fish oil is comprised of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Studies show it positively affects the body’s reduced ability to build muscle in ageing adults (anabolic resistance) as well as improvements with depression symptoms. Yet, the majority of the adult population fails to consume the recommended one portion of oily fish per week, which is the main source of omega-3. One average portion is thought to contain around 450mg of EPA and DHA combined. 

When planning menus within care or residential homes, oily fish should feature on the menu a minimum of twice a week and encouraged for its benefits mentioned above. In addition to oily fish there are other foods which contain omega 3 in lower doses worth including too:

  • Salmon 
  • Herring 
  • Mackerel 
  • Trout 
  • Sardines 
  • Pilchards 
  • Linseeds – add these to porridge in the milled format and they will blend in without changing the texture 
  • Rapeseed oil 
  • Walnuts – these are great as a snack with some cheese and celery 
  • Pumpkin seeds – add these to porridge or cereal as a crunchy topper 

A key consideration for older adults is that a GP should be consulted prior to adding in a fish oil supplement if the individual is taking any blood thinning medication (such as Warfarin). 

To make food and beverage management in care homes easier and more enjoyable, care home catering software can be an ideal solution. This software helps create balanced menus that include all the essential nutrients, ensuring every meal supports the health and happiness of your residents. By tracking nutrients and allergens, providing greater visibility of menus, and automating tasks that take you away from delivering care, care home nutritional software simplifies the process of preparing nutritious meals and allows for the gentle introduction of new, healthy foods. 

Supplementation 

To maintain optimal health, supplementation is an important consideration for older adults, especially those in care homes. Certain supplements can provide essential nutrients that might be lacking in their diet. Let’s look at the benefits of two key supplements, Vitamin D and creatine, and how they can be effectively incorporated into the daily routine to support overall wellbeing.

Vitamin D 
In the UK, everyone over the age of one is currently required to take a supplement of 10 micrograms of vitamin D3 per day during the months of September to March. However, for those adults who spend almost all their time indoors, particularly those in care homes or residential environments, this recommendation could be adopted all year round. Those with a darker skin pigment should also take a vitamin D supplement all year round as they aren’t able to absorb as much vitamin D3 from sunlight due to pigmentation. Vitamin D is involved in many things, namely, the maintenance of strong bones and teeth, supporting our immune system and has positive associations with mood. It comes in tablets or sprays which may be suitable for those who have trouble swallowing.

Creatine 
Creatine monohydrate is relatively cheap to purchase and is one of the most well researched supplements in the world. It is found naturally in meat, fish and milk and as a powder supplement it can be added to drinks, fruit smoothies, shakes or milk. It can help to enhance muscle mass and strength, improve brain function and memory, improve bone density and reduce the risk of age-related sarcopenia. It should be taken in a dose of 3-5g per day. Creatine is unflavoured which makes it versatile when adding it to dishes such as porridge and soup. 

Incorporating the right supplements into the daily routine of older adults in care homes can significantly enhance their overall health and quality of life. 

Hydration

Maintaining optimal hydration levels can have a direct impact on how you feel and your mental health. Between 50-70% of your body weight is water, so it’s clear to see how not maintaining your water level can impact how your body functions. As we age, our ability to consume adequate liquid throughout the day can become more difficult.

The best way to identify hydration and dehydration is through urine output. If it is dark yellow and smelly, this is a great indicator residents need to consume more fluid and quickly. They could also eat something containing a high percentage of water such as fruit or vegetables. 

It is also true that moderate intakes of all beverages positively contribute to hydration levels. Including drinks such as herbal teas, coffee (caffeinated or decaffeinated), water, squash or milkshakes all helps. And often it is about ensuring these are readily available and offered, particularly when the weather is warm.  

Symptoms of dehydration include feeling thirsty, having dry lips, feeling tired or lethargic, dizziness, headaches and a decrease in cognitive function or concentration. 

Something to look out for in older adults which will not only impact hydration levels but also blood pressure is salt intake. Whilst salt plays a role in flavouring food and it is required within the body for muscle movement, try to minimise adding it unnecessarily to foods. Processed foods such as bread, tinned and smoked items and cheese already contain a lot of salt. 

It is advisable not to consume caffeine late into the afternoon as it has a profound effect on sleep quality. Caffeine has a half-life of 6 hours which means for every caffeinated beverage you consumed, half of the caffeine is still active in your body 6 hours later, if you continue consuming caffeine this will build up until your body cannot relax. 

Ensuring that residents have easy access to a variety of fluids, monitoring hydration levels through urine output, and incorporating water-rich foods into their diet can help prevent dehydration. By being mindful of salt and caffeine intake, especially later in the day, caregivers can further support the overall health and comfort of those in their care. Promoting good hydration practices is a simple yet powerful way to enhance the quality of life for older adults. 

Software for care homes

Overall, we know that ensuring proper nutrition in care homes is vital for the health and wellbeing of residents. A balanced diet rich in essential nutrients like protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and key supplements such as Vitamin D and creatine can significantly boost physical strength, mental health, and overall vitality. 

Of course, it’s easy to talk about what older adults need to enjoy their later years, but we understand that keeping residents healthy and happy takes a lot of hard work. Providing high-quality care and creating tasty, nutritious meals can be quite a challenge, especially when you’re juggling the efficient running of a care home kitchen and sticking to a tight budget. 

Food service software can make a real difference for residential care homes. By simplifying the process of menu planning, tracking allergen and nutritional information, and streamlining kitchen operations, our software helps you focus more on making your residents feel safe and happy. We’ve been partnering with care homes for over 20 years to improve the quality of life for those you care for. Talk to our team today if you’re interested in improving the safety, operational efficiency, and overall costs of your care home catering.